I’ve been writing about Mega Man over on Anatomy of a Game, and while it’s all well and good for me to say, “Hey, this was a pretty great game,” that all gets a little fuzzy in the blur of history, you know? Mega Man arrived in Japan in December 1987 under the title Rockman, a venture by the generally underwhelming home console division of Capcom, and it marked a massive departure for the company. Not only was it hands-down superior to everything Capcom had developed and published on consoles to that date, it put the company’s internal studio on equal footing with the best developers on Famicom. For comparison, I’ve picked out the most comparable games released within three months of Rockman on either side. In this context, I really think the game stands out – only a couple of games come close to its level of control precision, the speed of its action, the depth of its mechanics, and its graphical finesse.

Before Rockman

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Air Fortress (HAL): A simple shooter that doesn’t play as well as it intends to, Air Fortress has its moments – its structure isn’t entirely different from Wario Land 4 – but never quite reaches classic status.

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Castlevania II (Konami): Recurring theme here: The only titles that really stand on par with Mega Man come from Konami, who for my money were the single best third-party developer for NES. I’d even argue that they were better than Nintendo in some respects. Less revolutionary, but more consistent. How many truly great NES games did Nintendo develop? Konami didn’t hit as hard, but it hit more steadily, and there’s a lot to be said for that kind of constancy. Simon’s Quest has its problems, but it looks and sounds great, and its design demonstrates a lot of ambition.

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Faxanadu (Hudson): A legitimate action RPG, Faxanadu has high-minded goals but its repetitive graphics and imperfect design keep it from achieving all it aspires to. Big world, moderate exploration, RPG leveling  almost but not quite offset weird collision detection, easily exploited design, and a pervasive sense of mediocrity.

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Rambo (Pack-in Video): I like this game, but I also recognize that it’s kind of terrible. Exploration and wilderness survival thwarted by some really stupid design decisions and incredibly vague objectives and stage layouts.

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Star Wars (Namco): The weirdest Star Wars game of them all, this platformer isn’t as terrible as it looks. But it plays awkwardly and isn’t particularly fun, either.

After Rockman

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Karnov (Data East): This game feels like a relic of 1986, not an early 1988 release. Janky, confusing, and poorly controlling, it’s a mess.

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Konami Wai Wai World (Konami): A surprisingly clumsy effort from Konami, the multi-character swapping and sloppy mechanics make it feel like a spiritual predecessor to the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in a lot of ways.

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Contra (Konami): A legitimate masterpiece, this shooter took a solid arcade game and made it amazing. Top-notch level design, a brilliant set of weapons, great graphics and music – Contra totally spanked Mega Man.

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Golgo 13: Top Secret Episode (Vic Tokai): Kind of a disaster of a game, it combines a lot of modes (side-scrolling action, sniping, horizontal shooter, first-person maze exploration) and does them all pretty poorly. But, you get to shoot cybernetic Hitler clones at the end, so that’s kind of neat.

21 comments on: Mega Man’s contemporaries

  1. Eric

    Is it just me or does Wai Wai World look like the first level of contra. Same development team perhaps?

  2. tetsujin42

    That’s actually a screen shoot from the much better WaiWai World 2

  3. tetsujin42

    Excuse me, I mean screenshot.

  4. ManekiNeko

    Well, to be fair, the reason a lot of those early NES games by Capcom were terrible was because they were farmed out to outside developers, particularly the horror show known as Micronics. They made games for Acclaim, Activision, FCI, and SNK as well, and they’re almost always irredeemable. Their “best” game was a conversion of Raiden for the Super NES that feels like the kind of game they SHOULD have been making five years earlier on the NES.

    • J. Parish

      I did research on this topic last week. Micronics only did a handful of early NES games for Capcom – 1942, SonSon, and Ghosts ‘N Goblins. Bombs like Commando were still on Capcom, not Micronics.

  5. DMT

    @Eric:
    The idea behind the game is that each level is themed after a certain Konami game; that screenshot (which is actually from Wai Wai World 2) was taken in the Contra level.

  6. Anthony Serrano

    That Wai Wai World screenshot looks like Contra because the Wai Wai World games are essentially Konami franchise Crossover.

  7. Sean C.

    I’ll have to agree with ManekiNeko. As an avid Chrontendo watcher. It seems most of the talent was in the arcade division. And they hired Micronics to do some horrible Famicom ports. (OK some of them I liked. I didn’t thing 1942 was bad) I don’t know if Mega Man was their first internally developed Famicom game (Ghosts and Goblins maybe?) but it sure showed the difference putting talented in house programmers on games could do on the Famicom. Mega Man definetly was a highlight of its era. Enough that there was quite an excitement leading up to its sequel. and I didn’t even own a NES at the time but was excited for 2 based on now good 1 was. I couldn’t imigine there would be that kind of buzz if they decided to make an Ait Fortress 2.

  8. J. Parish

    Just to be clear: Micronics developed 1942, Ghosts ‘N Goblins, and SonSon for Capcom. Internal Famicom development began at Capcom with, from what I can tell, Commando. They also did Trojan and Section Z. None of those were anywhere close to being on Mega Man’s level.

  9. Sean C.

    Micronics developed Ghostand Goblons? I did not know that. Personally I like that better than Mega Man (1) but I am a glutton for punishment. But ya, Mega Man definitely was a bar above most games of the time. I think as a kid The first Mega Man confused me a bit. I didn’t really”Get” it until number 2. Whereas Ghosts and Goblins was a pretty straight forward platformer that I could understand. If that helps explain my weird opinion there.

    • J. Parish

      Micronics programmed the NES port, but that was crap, man. The arcade version was cool, but the NES port reeked of non-effort.

  10. Lorenzo

    Released only a month after Mega Man, there is Captain Comic on the MS-DOS. It was later also released on the NES, and it’s one of my favourite childhood games, if not one of the harder ones because of the lack of saving.
    One could say it plays a bit like a Metroid, because there’s a number of areas with items and treasures that can be completed in a number of orders, and some items are necessary to advance into other areas, etc.

  11. Suto

    I used to go back and forth pn whether Konami or Capcom was my favorite developer. Starting with the Playstation era, it seemed that Konami only put effort into Metal Gear, and everything else was a little sloppy. I know there were exceptions, but I believe that has become increasingly true to this day. Capcom seems to have fallen off too. Since the Gamecube era, they seem to have really gone south. Remember when Resident Evil 4 was a world-class game? Now both companies seem to be outsourcing all their classic franchises to American and European studios, with varying degrees of success (Lords of Shadow, Bionic Commando). Maybe it is part of how AAA games nowadays require too many people and too much money, and Japan either doesn’t have enough resourses, or still isn’t as good at managing huge development teams. I wish both studios much luck, they were really great!

  12. iwuvkemonomimis

    I like the idea of this blog entry to offer a quick look games that were released around the same time as a game that is considered a classic. I have fond memories of humming Elec Man’s theme on the school bus when I was coming home from preschool or kindergarden.

  13. Eric

    @Anthony Serrano and @DMT

    Thanks, didn’t know that. Learn something new every day.

  14. Reggie

    Honestly, as an arcade rat, I was more than happy to play anything that was a home port from Capcom. As a kid, I didn’t question the quality because I assumed the NES was inferior to arcade hardware. It is easy to look back and say they were bad now, but taken in the context of that era, the ports weren’t that bad.

  15. Kirin

    Man, I remember having some fun with Air Fortress. Then again, I’m pretty sure I also remember it getting balls hard a few levels in, a situation that wasn’t helped any by some pretty touchy jet-pack physics. So uh, yeah.

  16. Super Boy Alan

    Despite the unevenness of Capcom’s in-house stuff prior to Mega Man – Commando, Trojan, Section Z, and that Pirate Ship Higemaru thing that never came out in the states – one thing is clear: they were willing to make substantial changes to their arcade games for the home experience. Granted, the hidden areas in Commando are a minor addition, the rebalancing of Trojan only goes so far towards improving it (although it makes the game a lot more manageable than the quarter-munchingly-brutal arcade version), and Section Z’s branching-path layout is a little bizarre, but from the moment they sacked Micronics, they tried to do *something* in their releases to make the experience a tad more console-like, or at least fix issues with the original game.

    Of course, it wasn’t until Bionic Commando that this reaped its highest dividends, but I’m sure I’m preaching to the choir here…

    There’s a lot more I could say, but I’ll close by mentioning that Golgo 13 contains some of my favorite Engrish on the NES.

    “REFUSE, YOU SAY WHAT, NO GREED?
    IF YOU REFUSE, I’LL USE THE MAN WITH THE M-16.”

    “YOU’VE ALWAYS TURNED THE IMPOSSIBLE INTO THE POSSIBLE,
    BUT I DON’T THINK YOU CAN STAND THIS PLACE ANY LONGER.”

    But the best one comes right after the previous:

    “OUR BOSE WILL TEACH YOU WHAT SOUVENIRS YOU CAN BRING BACK FROM HERE. HE’S SLEEPING SOMEWHERE DEEP INTO THIS BASE. YOU WON’T BE ABLE TO HIT HIM.”

    • J. Parish

      Yeah, so actually we just recorded an episode of Retronauts that covers all this Capcom stuff. You’ll hear it in 10 days!

  17. David

    Rambo looks more like a fitness instructor than a grizzled, muscular, PTSD-addled commie-killing machine. And while that game was terrible, it did teach me that it is indeed possible to destroy a tank with a knife.

  18. MetManMas

    The NES Ghosts ‘N Goblins is a terrible port, but if nothing else its version of the GnG theme was pretty neat compared to the more synth-y arcade composition. Shame the rest of the audio was so crap.

    @Super Boy Alan You mentioned that Pirate Ship Higemaru changed on console, but you forgot to mention that it went from being a single screen game where you kill pirates with barrels to a Zeldesque adventure game spanning several islands with some enemies and bosses ripped straight from Ghosts ‘N Goblins…and some unfortunate racist caricatures of course, but hey, 80s Japan.

    Harcore Gaming 101 has an article on it: http://www.hardcoregaming101.net/higemaru/higemaru.htm